The contempt for democracy

Think about this while you read press coverage of the student protests.

This is a cross-post from Enemies of Reason

We'll read a lot about these student protests today. Much of the rage will focus on the fact that an elderly chutney maker had his car kicked in by some people on his way to see Michael McIntyre and Cheryl Cole perform in his honour. Some will deplore the breaking and burning of things by those whom Kay Burley would label as "insurgents". Some others, maybe a smaller number, will wonder if it's a tremendously excellent thing to charge at children with police horses or drag other people out of wheelchairs, or bash them over the head with batons, and all of that – but probably conclude that, yes, sadly, it's actually OK.

One thing that might come up a few times is the idea that a protest of this nature shows "contempt for democracy". If it is, you have to ask: who showed contempt for democracy first?

Is it contemptuous of democracy, for example, to tell people that you have certain policies, become elected because of their votes on the basis of what you've said, and then once you're safely in power for five years, turn around and say, "Look, I'm awfully sorry but things have changed – that manifesto which we said was our manifesto is more of a 'holding manifesto', to be broken open in the unlikely event that we ever get elected with an overall majority; and it is to be entirely ignored if we become part of a coalition, when we can cheerfully reject some or all of our promises?"

Is it contemptuous of democracy, for example, to not tell people that you're going to introduce something like tuition fees in the first place, but then, once you're safely elected, and having given no indication that you're going to introduce tuition fees, introduce tuition fees?

Does it say something about politicians' contempt for democracy, perhaps, that the country can go to war with a foreign power that poses no threat to it, based on no legitimate evidence whatsoever, and that no citizen of that country should have a say in the matter; that entirely peaceful protests should be completely and utterly ignored because it is history, not citizens, who are the real judge of a prime minister, and besides, God told him it would all be all right?

No, of course not. Have a patronising pat on the head and a biscuit to make you feel better. None of that is contempt for democracy at all; that's just part of the rich ebb and flow of parliamentary life, which is so very vital and important to everything getting done. Well, if people told you what they were going to do, or did the things they told you they were going to do, how on earth could things function then? It would almost be as if you were voting for parties based on certain principles, or values, and that they would stick to them, or something. And that would never do.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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PMQs: David Cameron finds his way past Jeremy Corbyn's 4-5-1

The Prime Minister has finally got to grips with Jeremy Corbyn's new approach. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s best performances come when he speaks with the voices of others. Going for the traditional attacking and braying of PMQs leaves him badly exposed, allowing David Cameron to attack him on 30+ years of articles for the Morning Star, appearances on Russia Today, and any number of unsupportive remarks from Labour politicians, both retired and currently in Parliament.

“If JC attempts any kind of cut and thrust *at all* he will get shredded by DC for his own various positions,” reflected one of the team tasked with briefing the Labour leader before PMQs. Corbyn’s new approach to PMQs – of bringing public questions – have a double bonus: they are a living embodiment of the “new politics” that the Islington North MP promises and they make it much harder for Cameron to reply by attacking Corbyn’s record.

It’s a defensive tactic, but the occasional win in the old style is more than wiped out by the damage to Labour and Corbyn by allowing Cameron to play “Red Scare” in the House.

It’s no coincidence that Corbyn’s better PMQs have come when he uses the new-style and his worst when he attempts the old. Until today, the Prime Minister has seemed flummoxed by how to respond to the Labour leader’s use of real people at the despatch box.

But today he finally managed one, skilfully re-appropriating “Rosie”, a young Londoner who is being hit by the capital’s skyrocketing property and rents, in order to praise the government’s record – such as it is – on housebuilding. If you look at the small print, Cameron’s answers left much to be desired: he talked about people like Rosie working to pay the housing benefit of others, a benefit that largely goes to people in work. He praised a fairly indifferent record of housebuilding – that falls far short of where Britain’s housing stock needs to be even to stand still.

However, the Labour leader was incapable of pinning him down. With the old approach to PMQs a non-starter against Cameron, and the Prime Minister finally finding a way to live with the new style, a third way may have be found. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.